Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Au revoir and dovidenja

Meeting new friends is probably the best part of going to a new place. We were lucky enough here in France to meet, through David’s work, a wonderful family that showed us all sorts of corners of Auvergne that it never would have occurred to us to visit.

They hiked with us to this volcanic crater lake, Tour de Gazenat (it’s sixty meters deep in the center!), and then fed us an incredible meal—food and company-wise both—in their country farmhouse.

They spent Fourth of July hiking with us to this crater where we had a picnic with their homemade quiche (and spelled out the initials of our respective academic institutions with lava boulders!).

They also took us to the charming medieval town of Puy-en-Velay where we visited churches built on the top of volcanic chimneys.
All the outings were great, and France is beautiful, but the thing we will remember most fondly are the dear, kind people we got to know.

We are sad to leave new friends but happy to be heading back home to the USA after this wonderful year abroad. It has helped me be more reflective and observant to keep this blog, but now we are heading back to the familiar hurly-burly of our lives at home, and I won’t be posting.

Until we go abroad again, anyway…
The Bosnians say Dovidenja, and the French say Au revoir. Both mean, “Until I see you again.”

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Making knives

(The cords to transfer photos to my computer are buried somewhere inside one of our carefully packed and weighed 20 kg. suitcases, so none of our own photos today.)

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Thiers is a charming medieval town known throughout the world for its fine knives. This spring the city started a new program where tourists can make their own knives. Isaac and Eleanor each made their own tartineur, or spreading knife (i.e. not sharp) with their names etched in the blades. It was a straightforward half hour of assembly under the gentle guidance of one of the workers.

Emma Lucy made a sharp folding knife. The process for her was much more detailed and involved—she used a lot more machines than Isaac and Eleanor did and went through a lot more steps. It took a little over two hours.

They are obviously not used to English speakers; no one in the workshop spoke any English. This was not a problem with Isaac and Eleanor. I could figure out what their guide wanted them to do with a combination of my very rudimentary French and her expressive gestures. It would have been a problem if Emma Lucy spoke no French but it was actually very gratifying to her to realize that she understood pretty much everything.  

A little pricey, but a fantastic and memorable experience for everyone. One we’d do again in a heartbeat.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Maybe we need a boar or two as well

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We love Asterix and Obelix comics, the brilliant comic series about a tiny Gaul village that over and over outwits their would-be Roman conquerors. In fact, our oldest son became a reader the summer between kindergarten and first grade trying to decode all the words in one of our Asterix books.

We have landed squarely into the land of Asterix and Obelix here in Auvergne. Just outside of Clermont-Ferrand is the field where Vercingetorix, who grew up here in town, defeated Julius Caesar with his hardscrabble army of peasants. The revolt didn't last long--in less than a year Vercingetorix had surrendered to Caesar--but Vercingetorix is a French hero.

The body Vercingetorix is trampling in this statue in the central town square here is presumably a Roman soldier.
I thought all we were missing was a menhir or two, but then we saw one (in someone's yard!) in a village near here.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

The artist at work

Who knew you could draw on glass with dry-erase markers?

And luckily my kids are old enough to know to draw only on glass with dry-erase markers!

Friday, July 08, 2011


The city we're in has set up a public sector initiative to encourage biking: you can rent a bicycle for an hour, a day, a week, or--for an even cheaper price--for a month at a time. (And this is not unusual; Lyon, for example, has public bikes available around the city.) We've rented bikes for the whole time we've been here. It makes a huge difference in feeling willing to explore the city, to say nothing of getting to church every week, to have bikes. They rent only adult-sized bikes, but you can get bikes with baby seats, and Isaac has gotten really good at riding on a bike rack.

Back home we're used to flat ground, and Clermont is built on a volcano, so we've had to get used to climbing hills, but we'd rent bikes again in a heartbeat.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Grasping the, er, Green Tassel

One of Eleanor's great desires before we leave France was to ride the carousel in the park. She finally got her wish. We usually don't indulge all our kids' carousel wishes, but we've learned that riding a carousel in another country often has unexpected surprises--there was the merry-go-round with real horses in Germany and the one that never stopped moving, even when kids were getting on and off in Holland.

This one was no exception.

For half of the ride, the carousel operator dangled a large green tassel over the young riders. All of them snatched at it, but Eleanor was the one who successfully grabbed it.

She was happy enough with the game, but then it turned out that catching the tassel meant she got a second ride. Free!


So I suppose the carousel at Jardin Lecoq in Clermont-Ferrand can now be added to Wikipedia's select list of fewer than twenty carousels that still have brass rings for snatching. Well, if they'll expand the definition of "brass ring" to include large green yarn tassels.

Ruth heard about our carousel adventures and sent us this great link to the best-ever carousel horse race.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Flowers in the trees

How is it that I had to come to France to discover the catalpa tree? My identification site
tells me it grows all over the southern US.

The blossoms were there only briefly, but they're so beautiful.

Like little tiny orchids.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

L'Aventure Michelin

Clermont-Ferrand is the corporate headquarters of Michelin, Corporation. Basically, the tire on the car you drive was invented right here in the center of France.

Michelin has a large museum here that is well done (but do all corporate museums prohibit photography? very annoying)--lots about how the tire came to be invented and promoted as well as information about other industries that Michelin has been involved in. I'm always a sucker for historical advertisements, and there was one room devoted to Michelin advertising.

I finally figured out why the Michelin man is white. The first tires used white cotton fibers with the rubber, and they looked not exactly white but at least whitish.

And did you know the Michelin man has a name? Bibendum. It comes from the first ad that featured him. Michelin's great innovation was inventing a tire that could be quickly and easily repaired in case of puncture. Its competitors, notably Dunlop tires of Britain, fought furious ad campaigns over whose tire technology was preferable.

In this ad, other tire companies' tires are sitting around watching with amazement as the Michelin tire drinks a toast with a glass full of shards of glass and other sharp bits of things Roughly translated, the ad says, "Now drink up! To your health! That is to say, the Michelin tire drinks up the obstacle."

And thus, Bibendum, aka The Michelin Man, was born.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Hollywood stars, Auvergne style

Embedded in the sidewalk here and there around the city are metal plates celebrating native sons and daughters. At first we thought they were (very cool) drain plates, but they're just public art.

There's one of the founders of the city--she lived in 1195!

And the Gaul commander who defied the Romans for years (1200 years before Comtesse G!).

Pope Urban II who opened the first crusade in Clermont-Ferrand in November 1095.

And finally, that Johnny-come-lately, Blaise Pascal, who was born in Clermont-Ferrand in 1623 and helped to develop geometry and to defend the scientific method.

Sometimes living in Europe reminds me just how very, very young the United States is.

Happy Fourth of July!

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Beware your food

Health warnings printed on advertisements originated in the US, but they've adopted them here in France as well. All alcohol ads contain warnings like this one, "Alcohol abuse is dangerous to your health. Consume in moderation."

But French health warnings don't end with cigarettes and alcohol.

Down at the bottom, these say, "For your health, eat less fat, less sugar, and less salt.

This one urges, "Eat a varied diet. It's better for your health."

And this soda pop ad reminds, "For your health, avoid snacking between meals."

We may be in the land of cheese and butter-filled pastries, but it's also the land of nutritional awareness.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Up a tree

I always loved climbing trees when I was little. (Actually, I still do.)

One of the great gifts of going almost every day to the park without an agenda, without a plan, is that Isaac and Eleanor, all on their own, discovered that they love climbing trees too.

Lots of scuffed knees and heart-stopping moments for Mom, but sheer delight for the kids.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

More tree love

I loved the 100 Species Challenge that swept (well, maybe it just burbled) through the home-schooling community a couple of years ago The challenge is to identify 100 plants growing within a mile of where you live. What a great way to engage with and get to know the natural world! And besides, I just like knowing the names of things.

But I'm not very good at it. I collect leaves and come home and look them up and discover I don't remember whether the leaves were opposite or alternate or whether the fruits hung singly or in pairs. I always intend to go back and answer my questions, but it seldom happens.

Which is why the park here is perfect for me.

The city provides free wi-fi all through the park. So I just bring along my laptop and identify in situ. I cannot tell you how satisfying this has been.

This, ladies and gentleman, is (I think) from a horse chestnut tree (which also grown in the parking lot behind our dormitory).


Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Medieval Fest

One of the good things about settling into a place when you're abroad is that you end up doing things that might not have risen to the top of your list in a more ambitious tourist experience. Our town, Clermont-Ferrand, had a weeklong medieval fair in the medieval part of town, so one day we bicycled up there to check it out.

We were amazed by the buildings (though they're there year-round), the costumes, the fun, and the price (free!).

Chivalrous knights let our kids try on their armor.

And enjoy their tents at the jousting yard.

We had thought the jousting re-enactment would be the highlight of the day, but it turned out we loved everything else even more--a tiny petting area, presided over by a teenaged swineherd in medieval garb, the performers on the street, the retro-fitted playground.

And this game? Completely addictive. Someone with a jigsaw should definitely make one for the family reunion circuit.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


The town of Clermont-Ferrand is ringed by ancient volcanoes. Sitting on our balcony, we can easily see their silhouettes against the sky. The volcanoes have been silent since pre-history, but the university here has an active volcano study program, and there is Vulcania, a local theme park that another professor explained to us is much more akin to Kennedy Space Center than to Disneyland. \

They had several movies with good volcano footage, some of them with 3-D glasses and moving seats.

My favorite part of the whole park, though, was the grounds. They have fountains to operate--and run through.

Large swaths of the grounds were left as wildflower-studded meadows. And we loved the playgrounds dotted around the grounds.

Not quite what we'd expected from our day at Vulcania, but happy memories.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Ratatouille, un-Disneyfied

The most famous chef in Lyon is Paul Bocuse.

He has three stars from Michelin and a very famous restaurant in Lyon and there is even a prize for the world's best chefs named after him.

He also has, in Lyon, two fast food restaurants.

His famous restaurant is beyond our family's budget, but we ate at Ouest Express, his fast food eatery--quand la cuisine se fait rapide. It was a sleek, chic space on a terrace. The food was more expensive than American fast food, but only slightly more than French fast food, and it was really good.

We loved the presentation--the crusty roll that came with the salad, and the tiny bottle--a real bottle!--of dressing.

I'm not sure whether this is Bocuse selling out, but our family enjoyed our tiny brush with fine dining.